Published November 02, 2010
Oct. 22: Candidates for Indiana’s open Senate seat Republican Dan Coats, right, responds to Democratic Rep. Brad Ellsworth during a debate in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Republicans scored several early Senate victories Tuesday night as polls started to close, with candidates in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana winning open seats as the party aims to build a majority for the first time since 2004.
Republican Rob Portman, an ex-congressman and former White House budget director, has beaten Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher in Ohio, Fox News projects. Both he and Tea Party-backed Rand Paul in Kentucky will fill seats left by retiring Republicans.
But former Sen. Dan Coats in Indiana scored the first GOP Senate pick-up of the night, beating Democratic Rep. Brad Ellsworth for the seat left by retiring Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh. He was leading 55-39 in early returns.
Paul beat Kentucky state Attorney General Jack Conway after a bitter contest that delved into Paul’s religion and made for some tense debates. Paul, who is leading 55-45 percent in early returns, won despite a last-minute visit by former President Bill Clinton for Conway.
The Kentucky Senate seat is currently held by a Republican, retiring Sen. Jim Bunning.
Elsewhere, Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy easily won his reelection race, as did South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, who faced off against Democrat Alvin Greene, an unemployed unknown who won his party’s primary without campaigning.
The race for governor in South Carolina is too close to call, with Republican Nikki Haley competing against Democrat Vincent Sheheen. Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland is also in a tight race against Republican John Kasich.
Republicans have a couple of magic numbers in mind Tuesday night. They need to pick up 10 seats to seize a majority in the Senate; 39 seats to seize a majority in the House. So far, Republican candidates have won 14 seats in the House, while Democrats have won one on the road to the 218 seats needed for a majority in that chamber.
With the strength of the Tea Party movement at their backs, GOP candidates are hoping the enthusiasm of their supporters will help propel them to historic pickups in Congress and give them the leverage to put a check on the Obama administration’s policies.
Though Democrats barnstormed into Congress in huge numbers over the past two cycles — helped in no small part by President Obama’s historic presidential run in 2008 — frustration over the economy and far-reaching legislation passed under the current administration have fueled a crop of candidates vowing to bring a renewed model of small-government conservatism to Washington.
The most visible and vocal drivers of that political breed have been the Tea Party, which aggravated several GOP primary contests by backing non-establishment candidates who, in many cases, won. Election night stands as a test of that movement’s strength.
But while the Obama administration rejects the description of Election Day as a referendum on the president’s policies, Republican candidates say Tuesday night’s returns will have everything to do with Obama.
Many of their candidates ran as much against Obama and the Democratic leaders in Congress as they did against their own opponents. Across the country, Republican nominees cast their Democratic foes as tools of the Obama administration, while Democrats returned fire by casting Republicans — particularly those backed by the Tea Party — as extreme.
Republican leaders have warned that victories on Tuesday do not necessarily translate to a mandate, and that they’ll have to follow through on their promises to cut spending and rein in government to gain the voters’ trust.
Thirty-seven governor’s seats are also on the line Tuesday.